Monday, February 01, 2016

Nothing like a boat disaster to help you think about risk

I've been thinking about my sense of travel risks since last week's boat disaster.
Pangas - heavy fibreglass open boats, generally with a couple of big outboards - run between Corn Island and Little Corn Island, off the Nicaraguan mainland in the Caribbean. The airport is on Corn Island, a lot of people want to stay on quieter Little Corn and the boats ferry people the 15 kms between the two.
A sometimes bumpy ride, as my writer friend Matt Jones describes here.
On Jan. 23, the winds had prevented sailings for at least a day, and tourists were getting impatient. A group of Costa Rican travellers stranded on Little Corn arranged a trip with Captain Hilario Blandón, who ended up with 32 passengers on board, plus his helper.
It went wrong. About five kms from Little Corn, three waves hit the boat. The first rocked it and all the passengers slid to one side, sending the boat into a dangerous list. A second wave dumped them in the water. A third flipped the boat.
Twenty-one people were rescued. Thirteen died.
After four years in Central America, I can easily imagine myself standing on the dock on Little Corn, impatient to head to to the next destination. Checking out the boat, deciding the captain knew what he was doing and climbing on board.
You get used to sketchy transportation options in poor countries. Crowded, beat-up buses with bald tires and texting drivers, or a four-hour ride on a plank seat in the open back of a truck. Perhaps too used to them.
Early in our time in Honduras, Cuso International was worried about security as the murder rate became the highest in the world. I helped with a survey of volunteers about their concerns.
Transportation was the big issue, not crime. Bad roads, poorly maintained vehicles, unreliable buses.
I've only been alarmed a few times by bus drivers who seemed to have crossed some line of basic sense.
But the boat disaster was a good reminder that you're responsible for your safety here.
The captain might not know what he's doing. The boat might not have enough life jackets or they might be homemade and useless, as they apparently were in this case.
The whole trip might be in defiance of safety warnings. (Some news stories have said the naval authorities had ordered boats not to sail; others say that's not true. The captain and helper have been charged with negligent homicide.)
The reality is that if you were super security conscious and paid attention to every warning you probably wouldn't leave your house.
I don't think we're reckless, but we do rely a lot on instinct when it comes to walking or taking a cab, leaping onto a jammed bus or waiting, or deciding whether to pay for a tour or accept the challenge of standing by a dark highway at night hoping a bus comes along.
But the boat disaster is a good reminder not to get too comfortable.
That happens. A Danish traveller almost had his backpack taken on a bus, until Nicaraguans warned him about the departing thief. We talked, and he said he had been on the road for almost two months. He never would have been so inattentive in his first few weeks, he said, but everything had gone so well.
I expect it's like that in assessing other risks too. Nothing goes wrong, so you are more inclined to leap from the dock into the boat. Which might explain how we ended up hitchhiking on a deserted road at dusk in Honduras, having counted on buses that didn't run in the late afternoon. Oh, and with grandchildren.
That turned out fine. We piled into the back of a suspiciously expensive truck and were back in town in about 45 minutes. You can, mostly, count on the kindness of strangers.
It's an interesting balance for travellers, or people living in a different country.
Not careful enough, and you might get hurt. Too careful, and you miss out on great experiences.
The disaster sent the Nicaraguan authorities into a belated boat safety campaign. They shut down the three main boats sailing to the island of Ometepe, a popular tourist destination in Lake Nicaragua - or Cocibolca, as it was named by indigenous people. It took two days for the owners to scrounge up life jackets and other safety equipment, as angry tourists and locals sat on the docks.
We took the boat to Ometepe last year. It seemed safe enough sitting in the sun on the top deck. But I didn't really think about how I'd get to a life jacket as we bounced through the waves.
Maybe next time I will.
But I'll still probably climb off the dock and on to the boat.